Public universities function as powerhouses in the production of scientific data. Research conducted at such universities and by private industry has a huge impact on public policy as well as the decisions we make about our health and environment. According to a 2009 report by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), U.S. universities received an average of $33,417 of funding a year from medical device, pharmaceutical and other medical industry companies. Although this funding is critical for many scientists to be able to do their research, it can lead to self-censorship, suppression of data, or misrepresentation of results. Studies have confirmed that conflicts of interest can influence research in important ways. For example, a 1998 JAMA article asking ‘Why Review Articles on the Health Effects of Passive Smoking Reach Different Conclusions,’ concluded that 94% of industry sponsored reviews, but only 13% of non-industry sponsored reviews, yielded pro-tobacco industry results.

According to a September 2009 report by Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), some academic disciplines have become so intertwined with industry that few academics are able to retain their independence. The report stated that many sectors not previously examined have been influenced by industry as well. For example, SGR found that chemical engineering and geology are strongly linked to oil companies and many life sciences departments have extensive links with the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. In fact, according to a survey published in the journal Health Affairs, more than half of academic research faculty in the life sciences at top schools reported financial ties to the industry.

See also ‘Effects of Soft Drink Consumption on Nutrition and Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,’ (2007) finding that results differed significantly when studies funded and not funded by the food industry were compared.

For an article proposing guidelines for industry funding of research (interestingly supported in part by Cadbury, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Mars Snackfoods, PepsiCo Inc, Procter & Gamble, Sara Lee, and Tate & Lyle) see ‘Funding food science and nutrition research: financial conflicts and scientific integrity’ (2009)

For an in-depth analysis of the benefits, along with the dangers, of these conflicts of interest, see ‘Is Sunlight Always the Best Disinfectant?’ (2009)